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The Ghost Brigades
By John Scalzi, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC Copyright © 2006 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
No one noticed the rock.
And for a very good reason. The rock was nondescript, one of millions of chunks of rock and ice floating in the parabolic orbit of a long-dead short-period comet, looking just like any chunk of that deceased comet might. The rock was smaller than some, larger than others, but on a distribution scale there was nothing to distinguish it one way or another. On the almost unfathomably small chance that the rock was spotted by a planetary defense grid, a cursory examination would show the rock to be composed of silicates and some ores. Which is to say: a rock, not nearly large enough to cause any real damage.
This was an academic matter for the planet currently intersecting the path of the rock and several thousand of its brethren; it had no planetary defense grid. It did, however, have a gravity well, into which the rock fell, along with those many brethren. Together they would form a meteor shower, as so many chunks of ice and rock did each time the planet intersected the comet's orbit, once per planetary revolution. No intelligent creature stood on the surface of this bitterly cold planet, but if one had it could have looked up and seen the pretty streaks and smears of these little chunks of matter as they burned in the atmosphere, superheated by the friction of air against rock.
The vast majority of these newly minted meteors would vaporize in the atmosphere, their matter transmuted during their incandescent fall from a discrete and solid clump to a long smudge of microscopic particles. These would remain in the atmosphere indefinitely, until they became the nuclei of water droplets, and the sheer mass of the water dragged them to the ground as rain (or, more likely given the nature of the planet, snow).
This rock, however, had mass on its side. Chunks flew as the atmospheric pressure tore open hairline cracks in the rock's structure, the stress of plummeting through the thickening mat of gases exposing structural flaws and weaknesses and exploiting them violently. Fragments sheared off, sparkled brilliantly and momentarily and were consumed by the sky. And yet at the end of its journey through the atmosphere, enough remained to impact the planet surface, the flaming bolus smacking hard and fast onto a plain of rock that had been blown clean of ice and snow by high winds.
The impact vaporized the rock and a modest amount of the plain, excavating an equally modest crater. The rock plain, which extended for a significant distance on and below the planet surface, rang with the impact like a bell, harmonics pealing several octaves below the hearing range of most known intelligent species.
The ground trembled.
And in the distance, beneath the planet surface, someone finally noticed the rock.
"Quake," said Sharan. She didn't look up from her monitor.
Several moments later, another tremor followed.
"Quake," said Sharan.
Cainen looked over to his assistant from his own monitor. "Are you planning to do this every time?" he asked.
"I want to keep you informed of events as they happen," Sharan said.
"I appreciate the sentiment," Cainen said, "but you really don't have to mention it every single time. I am a scientist. I understand that when the ground moves we're experiencing a quake. Your first declaration was useful. By the fifth or sixth time, it gets monotonous."
Another rumble. "Quake," said Sharan. "That's number seven. Anyway, you're not a tectonicist. This is outside your many fields of expertise." Despite Sharan's typical deadpan delivery, the sarcasm was hard to miss.
If Cainen hadn't been sleeping with his assistant, he might have been irritated. As it was, he allowed himself to be tolerantly amused. "I don't recall you being a master tectonicist," he said.
"It's a hobby," said Sharan.
Cainen opened his mouth to respond and then the ground suddenly and violently launched itself up to meet him. It took a moment for Cainen to realize it wasn't the floor that jerked up to meet him, he'd been suddenly driven to the floor. He was now haphazardly sprawled on the tiles, along with about half the objects formerly positioned on his workstation. Cainen's work stool lay capsized a body length to the right, still teetering from the upheaval.
He looked over to Sharan, who was no longer looking at her monitor, in part because it lay shattered on the ground, near where Sharan herself was toppled.
"What was that?" Cainen asked.
"Quake?" Sharan suggested, somewhat hopefully, and then screamed as the lab bounced energetically around them again. Lighting and acoustic panels fell from the ceiling; both Cainen and Sharan struggled to crawl under workbenches. The world imploded around them for a while as they cowered under their tables.
Presently the shaking stopped. Cainen looked around in what flickering light still remained and saw the majority of his lab on the floor, including much of the ceiling and part of the walls. Usually the lab was filled with workers and Cainen's other assistants, but he and Sharan had come in late to finish up some sequencing. Most of his staff had been in the base barracks, probably asleep. Well, they were awake now.
A high, keening noise echoed down the hall leading to the lab.
"Do you hear that?" Sharan asked.
Cainen gave an affirmative head dip. "It's the siren for battle stations."
"We're under attack?" Sharan asked. "I thought this base was shielded."
"It is," Cainen said. "Or was. Supposed to be, anyway."
"Well, a fine job, I must say," Sharan said.
Now Cainen was irritated. "Nothing is perfect, Sharan," he said.
"Sorry," Sharan said, keying in on her boss's sudden irritation. Cainen grunted and then slid out from underneath his workbench and picked his way to a toppled-over storage locker. "Come help me with this," he said to Sharan. Between them they maneuvered the locker to where Cainen could shove open the locker door. Inside was a small projectile gun and a cartridge of projectiles.
"Where did you get this?" Sharan asked.
"This is a military base, Sharan," Cainen said. "They have weapons. I have two of these. One is here and one is back in the barracks. I thought they might be useful if something like this happened."
"We're not military," Sharan said.
"And I'm sure that will make a huge difference to whoever is attacking the base," Cainen said, and offered the gun to Sharan. "Take this."
"Don't give that to me," Sharan said. "I've never used one. You take it."
"Are you sure?" Cainen asked.
"I'm sure," Sharan said. "I'd just end up shooting myself in the leg."
"All right," Cainen said. He mounted the ammunition cartridge into the gun and slipped the gun into a coat pocket. "We should head to our barracks. Our people are there. If anything happens, we should be with them." Sharan mutely gave her assent. Her usual sarcastic persona was now entirely stripped away; she looked drained and frightened. Cainen gave her a quick squeeze.
"Come on, Sharan," he said. "We'll be all right. Let's just try to get to the barracks."
The two had begun to weave through the rubble in the hall when they heard the sublevel stairwell door slide open. Cainen peered through the dust and low light to make out two large forms coming through the door. Cainen began to backtrack toward the lab; Sharan, who had the same thought rather faster than her boss, had already made it to the lab doorway. The only other way off the floor was the elevator, which lay past the stairwell. They were trapped. Cainen patted his coat pocket as he retreated; he didn't have all that much more experience with a gun than Sharan and was not at all confident that he'd be able to hit even one target at a distance, much less two, each presumably a trained soldier.
"Administrator Cainen," said one of the forms.
"What?" Cainen said, in spite of himself, and immediately regretted giving himself away.
"Administrator Cainen," said the form again. "We've come to retrieve you. You're not safe here." The form walked forward into a splay of light and resolved itself into Aten Randt, one of the base commandants. Cainen finally recognized him by the clan design on his carapace and his insignia. Aten Randt was an Eneshan, and Cainen was vaguely ashamed to admit that even after all this time at the base, they all still looked alike to him.
"Who is attacking us?" Cainen asked. "How did they find the base?"
"We're not sure who is attacking us or why," Aten Randt said. The clicking of his mouthpieces was translated into recognizable speech by a small device that hung from his neck. Aten Randt could understand Cainen without the device, but needed it to speak with him. "The bombardment came from orbit and we've only now targeted their landing craft." Aten Randt advanced on Cainen; Cainen tried not to flinch. Despite their time here and their relatively good working relationship, he was still nervous around the massive insectoid race. "Administrator Cainen, you cannot be found here. We need to get you away from here before the base is invaded."
"All right," Cainen said. He motioned Sharan forward to come with him.
"Not her," Aten Randt said. "Only you."
Cainen stopped. "She's my aide. I need her," he said.
The base shook from another bombardment. Cainen felt himself slam into a wall and collapsed to the ground. As he fell he noted that neither Aten Randt nor the other Eneshan soldier had moved so much as a fraction from their position.
"This is not an appropriate time to debate the issue, Administrator," Aten Randt said. The flat affect of the translation device gave the comment an unintentionally sardonic quality.
Cainen began to protest again, but Sharan gently took hold of his arm. "Cainen. He's right," she said. "You need to get out of here. It's bad enough any of us are here. But you being found here would be a very bad thing."
"I won't leave you here," Cainen said.
"Cainen," Sharan said, and pointed at Aten Randt, who was standing by, impassive. "He's one of the highest-ranking military officers here. We're under attack. They're not going to send someone like him on a trivial errand. And now is not the time to argue anyway. So go. I'll find my way back to the barracks. We've been here a while, you know. I remember how to get there."
Cainen stared at Sharan for a minute and then pointed past Aten Randt to the other Eneshan soldier. "You," he said. "Escort her back to her barracks."
"I need him with me, Administrator," Aten Randt said.
"You can handle me by yourself," Cainen said. "And if she doesn't get the escort from him, she'll get the escort from me."
Aten Randt covered his translation device and motioned the soldier over. They leaned in close and clacked at each other quietly—not that it mattered, as Cainen didn't understand Eneshan language. Then the two separated and the soldier went to stand by Sharan.
"He will take her to her barracks," Aten Randt said. "But there is to be no more argument from you. We have wasted too much time already. Come with me now, Administrator." He reached out, grabbed Cainen by the arm and pulled him toward the stairwell door. Cainen glanced back to see Sharan staring up fearfully at the immense Eneshan soldier. This final image of his assistant and lover disappeared as Aten Randt shoved him through the doorway.
"That hurt," Cainen said.
"Quiet," Aten Randt said, and pushed Cainen forward on the stairs. They began to climb, the Eneshan's surprisingly short and delicate lower appendages matching Cainen's own stride up the steps. "It took far too long to find you and too long to get you moving. Why were you not in your barracks?"
"We were finishing up some work," Cainen said. "It's not as if we have much else to do around here. Where are we going now?"
"Up," Aten Randt said. "There is an underground service railroad we need to get to."
Cainen stopped for a moment and looked back at Aten Randt, who despite being several steps below him was nearly at the same height. "That goes to hydroponics," Cainen said. Cainen, Sharan and other members of his staff would go to the base's immense underground hydroponics bay on occasion for the greenery; the planet's surface was not exactly inviting unless hypothermia was something you enjoyed. Hydroponics was the closest you could get to being outside.
"Hydroponics is in a natural cave," Aten Randt said, prodding Cainen back into motion. "An underground river lies beyond it, in a sealed area. It flows into an underground lake. There is a small living module hidden there that will hold you."
"You never told me about this before," Cainen said.
"We did not expect the need to tell you," Aten Randt said.
"Am I swimming there?" Cainen asked.
"There is a small submersible," Aten Randt said. "It will be cramped, even for you. But it has already been programmed with the location of the module."
"And how long will I be staying there?"
"Let us hope no time at all," Aten Randt said. "Because the alternative will be a very long time indeed. Two more flights, Administrator."
The two stopped at the door two flights up, as Cainen attempted to catch his breath and Aten Randt clicked his mouthpieces into his communicator. The noise of battle several stories above them filtered down through the stone of the ground and the concrete of the walls. "They've reached the base but we're holding them on the surface for now," Aten Randt said to Cainen, lowering his communicator. "They haven't reached this level. We may still get you to safety. Follow close behind me, Administrator. Don't fall behind. Do you understand me?"
"I understand," said Cainen.
"Then let's go," Aten Randt said. He hoisted his rather impressive weapon, opened the door, and strode out into the hall. As Aten Randt began moving, Cainen saw the Eneshan's lower appendages extend as an additional leg articulation emerged from inside his carapace. It was a sprinting mechanism that gave Eneshans terrifying speed and agility in battle situations and reminded Cainen of any number of creepy-crawlies from his childhood. He repressed a shiver of revulsion and raced to keep up, stumbling more than once in the debris-strewn hallway, heading all too slowly for the small rail station on the other side of the level.
Cainen panted up as Aten Randt was examining the controls of the small rail engine, whose passenger compartment was open to the air. He had already disconnected the engine from the railcars behind it. "I told you to keep up," Aten Randt said.
"Some of us are old, and can't double the length of our legs," Cainen said, and pointed to the rail engine. "Do I get on that?"
"We should walk," Aten Randt said, and Cainen's legs began to cramp preemptively. "But I don't think you'll be able to keep pace the entire distance, and we're running out of time. We'll have to risk using this. Get on." Cainen gratefully climbed into the passenger area, which was roomy, built as it was for two Enesha. Aten Randt eased the little engine to its full speed—about twice an Eneshan's sprinting pace, which seemed uncomfortably fast in the cramped tunnel—and then turned around and raised his weapon again, scanning the tunnel behind them for targets.
"What happens to me if the base is overrun?" Cainen asked.
"You'll be safe in the living module," Aten Randt said.
"Yes, but if the base is overrun, who will come to get me?" Cainen asked. "I can't stay in that module forever, and I won't know how to get back out. No matter how well- prepared this module of yours is, it will eventually run out of supplies. Not to mention air."
"The module has the ability to extract dissolved oxygen from the water," Aten Randt said. "You won't suffocate."
"Wonderful. But that still leaves starvation," said Cainen.
"The lake has an outlet—" Aten Randt began, and that was as far as he got before the engine derailed with a sudden jerk. The roar of the collapsing tunnel drowned out all other noise; Cainen and Aten Randt found themselves briefly airborne as they were hurled from the passenger area of the rail engine into the sudden, dusty darkness.
Cainen found himself being prodded awake an indeterminate time later by Aten Randt. "Wake up, Administrator," Aten Randt said.
Excerpted from The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2006 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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